Ava DuVernay's Right: Violent Rihanna, Kendrick Videos Reflect Our Times


Over the weekend, just as some feminists were firing up their pens to write scathing takes on Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video and other feminists were nimbly rebutting them, director Ava DuVernay was able to sum up the climate with just a tweet:

DuVernay was referring to “BBHMM,” in which Rihanna exacts revenge on her alleged male accountant by kidnapping (and then partying with!) his white female partner before returning her home and Dexter-style slicing him up—a clip which, in tandem with some peoples’ recoiling from the images, also invoked the sphere of white women’s historical complicity and collusion with white men in the oppression and subjugation of black people.

She was also referring to “Alright,” in which Kendrick Lamar juxtaposes gorgeous images of black unity and exultation with shots of police violence and murder of his black brothers and, ultimately, Kendrick himself. And she was referring to “Money Over Love,” in which Bilal narrates the gut-wrenching story of a young, broke couple in love, who are further broken once the woman turns to sex work.

These are not uncomplicated tales, and DuVernay’s tweet was what I was thinking about while watching the also-just-released video for “Burial”—a brolic 2014 track by Yogi, Skrillex, Pusha T, Moody Good, and TrollPhace which this year got a boost as the soundtrack to HBO’s constantly-played Ballers trailer.

In the “Burial” video, a crew of mask-wearing mimes destroy a barber shop while Pusha T calmly gets his hair done, and then convene for a bit of athletic choreography (bone breaking, flexing) in the corner, their frustration and anger transformed into an artistic outlet. For the first half, most of the aggression lies with the song itself—taut bass quivers with Pusha’s urgency—but once the players come to the streets, the mood shifts. Pusha removes his face to reveal Dennis Rodman, and a tense dance battle results in one of the dancers on the ground, writhing in flames as the song peaks and his cohorts dance and contort their bodies around him, terrifying in clear masks that render them faceless, nameless. Pusha T will “turn this bitch into a burial.” Rodman flicks off a match, the boy on the ground explodes.

That we’ve had a week in which no less than four (and surely there are others) videos by or featuring prominent black artists buck against the heartbreaks and uprisings of the past year through their own interpretations of violence—whether gruesome, or surreal, or serene, or grotesque, or absurd, or very sad, or all of these things—is neither a surprise, nor unexpected. Even at its most mainstream, successful pop music always does this: processes the harrowing news cycle, gives those images back to us without filter and with a resolute nah. It lights a fire.

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